A Night at Thrillpeddlers

Last Thursday Dave and I went to see Thrillpeddler’s latest show, The Hypnodrome’s Night of Erotic Appetizers, subtitled “A Grand Guignol Shockfest”. The shocks were not abundant, and it’s not the best stuff we’ve seen from them, but it was fun all the same.

The program started, curiously, with a performance of Cobra, an essentially aleatory piece of music by John Zorn, a composer I’d never heard of before (though Dave of course had), that was probably terribly avant-garde 50 or 60 years ago. The conductor stood behind a table full of face-down cards, and the musicians improvised and interacted with each other in various ways that seemed to be determined by which card was turned up at any particular time. At various times the musicians seemed to be communicating with the conductor by hand signal as to what card he should turn up next — holding out two fingers to indicate the second card, and so on — though as far as I could see they didn’t know where the cards were and had no particular goal in any of this, so it was essentially random selection. The piece had some amusing moments but it was shapeless and didn’t go anywhere and after a while it just ended.

Next on the program was an interesting talk on the decadence of Weimar Germany by Mel Gordon, author of some terrific books on Grand Guignol and Weimar Germany that I’ve enjoyed a lot. He’s a likeable speaker, too, knowledgeable without being insufferably academic about it, down to earth and good-humored and with an agreeable sense of humor, dry but not cynical — he clearly has a sincere human enthusiasm and affection for his subject.

As he talked, I was struck at how little some of what he was describing about Weimar Berlin differed from life in the United States today, and not just in the big cities, either. For example, he talked about a huge restaurant in Berlin that had some eight or so areas devoted to the foods of different countries (like the food court at any mall today), each with its own live entertainment (not all that unlike the music piped into every restaurant to set the atmosphere). An artificial river flowed through the restaurant (like the Blue Bayou restaurant at Disneyland), and every hour there would be a short artificial thunderstorm (like the restaurant at the Peppermill casino in Reno where we eat sometimes when we’re visiting Dave’s mother, or for that matter, like the produce section at most any Safeway).

He also talked about the craze for nudist camps, and showed a short black-and-white exploitation film from the 1930s about one. A hoot, though not very erotic or scandalous when you already live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have several beaches readily available when you feel in the mood to get naked in the sun and open air.

Mr. Gordon then talked a bit about modern dancer Anita Berber, who seems to have been on a quest to soak up as much drugs and alcohol as she could, and then not too surprisingly died in her late 20s. We were served a variety of aphrodisiacs made from recipes from Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sexology Museum (the herbal drink was tasty but I could have skipped the plate of aphrodesiac hors d’oeuvres, which were heavy on the stomach and neither interesting nor effective enough to be worth the sampling). Bijou O’Keefe then performed an interpretation of one of Anita Berber’s dances, Morphine.

The final piece on the program was the one true piece of Grand Guignol, a one-acter called Orgy at the Lighthouse. Dave and I saw Thrillpeddlers do it once before. In some ways it was done better this time, too, though it’s one of Thrillpeddlers’ weaker pieces in any case. Four young people have a drunken party, including sex, when one of the two young men is supposed to be on duty at the lighthouse, and when a storm rolls in suddenly, grisly things happen as a result. So it’s fun and creepy and titillating, and has a fair number of shocks along with all the exposed flesh and stage blood. But even for a sordid melodrama, it isn’t really all that well or imaginitively constructed a piece and it doesn’t build up a lot of suspense. We’ve seen other Grand Guignol pieces at Thrillpeddlers that were more genuinely unsettling.

So all in all, a pleasant and interesting but not extraordinary evening.

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